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2 comments to What are the policies of the candidates and political parties about SBS funding and advertising on SBS?

  • SaveOurSBS Editor

    In the lead up to the 2007 federal election the Walkley Magazine published an opinion about the change in advertising policies at SBS, the possible effect on the ABC and the changing face of public broadcasting. So what are the opposition policies on these issues? SaveOurSBS has been granted permission to re-publish the story below by Quentin Quentin Dempster. It originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of the Walkley Magazine. The full story is reproduced below.

    “Come Clean On Commercialisation” by Quentin Dempster

    With the federal election campaign already in full swing Quentin Dempster previews the policy debate about the future of public broadcasting.

    “Stiff and stiffer.” Those erectile dysfunction ads on SBS television are helping to spotlight the Howard government’s insidious agenda for public broadcasting in Australia.

    The 2004 Liberal Party election manifesto made no mention of stretching or reinterpreting the SBS Act’s definition of “natural breaks”. From 1992, when advertising was introduced at SBS through an amendment to the SBS Act, the SBS board’s consistent legal advice was that “natural breaks” meant ads could only be broadcast between programs, not during them, with the possible exception of lengthy sporting coverage. That interpretation prevailed from 1992 to 2007. Last year the [Carla] Zampatti-chaired board at SBS overruled that 15-year internal legal advice to seek an external counsel’s opinion.

    That process produced for the SBS board a legal opinion that “natural breaks” could be interpreted as meaning convenient spots within programs. Equipped with this highly questionable and still legally untested opinion, the SBS board, without advance notice or consultation with its audience, set about turning SBS television into a fully commercial channel.

    In fact, the Zampatti board’s business plan is to turn SBS Television into Australia’s fourth free-to-air commercial channel.

    Don’t take my word for it. An eagle-eyed informant, knowing my aversion to commercialising public broadcasting in Australia, spotted the SBS business strategy in B&T, the advertising industry magazine.

    On January 17, just as SBS was to start broadcasting ads through its new hour-long news, documentaries, feature films and other programs, B&T told the advertising and marketing industry that SBS was out “to position SBS as Australia’s fourth commercial network”.

    B&T quoted SBS commercial director Richard Finlayson: “We have tended to fly under the radar and people just have not taken us seriously. Our long-term agenda is that we do not want people to just think about the three commercial networks but SBS as well. We are now taking a more aggressive approach to communicating our message and particularly with building our relationships with key media.”

    The Zampatti board has embarked on this fully commercial business plan with the informal agreement of the Howard government that appointed it.

    Again, this fundamental change to the role and funding of SBS within the broadcast media was not in the ruling Liberal Party’s 2004 election manifesto.

    The Howard government has no mandate from the Australian people to do this. The communications minister, Helen Coonan, says advertising within programs at SBS is a matter for the “independent” SBS board. But when the other commercial television networks realise what is in play, the minister, and undoubtedly the prime minister, will suffer the wrath of those competing in a now very tight free-to-air TV advertising market. Was it government policy to impose a fourth fully commercial television channel by stealth when Coonan’s recently announced media reforms ruled out such a channel?

    The Zampatti board will say that the Special Broadcasting Service Act caps advertising at just five minutes an hour, unlike Seven, Nine and Ten, which can broadcast up to 15 minutes an hour. But after bludgeoning the SBS audience with in-program advertising and achieving their reluctant acceptance, it is only a matter of time before the board seeks the removal of the cap.

    The ethnic communities of Australia, for which SBS was created by the Fraser government (1975-83), have almost given up on SBS. With its ratings-chasing programming in sport and the replacement of all foreign language programming with English language programs in prime time, SBS seems to have abandoned its original charter to enhance its commercial revenue. It is now rejigging its news and current affairs output to adopt a more “commercial feel”.

    There needs to be an important reassessment of the future of SBS. The taxpayers of Australia, who have invested ten of millions of dollars each year in SBS, should be consulted. The ABC would have a stronger case to merge with SBS and take on its multicultural charter obligations through the internet, digital multi-channel free-to-air television and digital radio, if the ABC were not already infected with the commercial virus. This virus has been injected into its veins by the Howard government through the [Maurice] Newman board.

    The Newman board has restructured the ABC divisions, replacing ABC Enterprises (which manages ABC Shops and other related products) with what it is calling ABC Commercial.

    With the ABC Act expressly prohibiting advertising on ABC radio and television, ABC Commercial wants to construct a new business plan around cybercast advertising on ABC Online. Broadcasting is rapidly morphing into cybercasting. If you miss tonight’s edition of The 7.30 Report, ABC TV News, or any other ABC copyright program, soon you will be able to go to your computer and play the full digital video at any time. People are already watching the popular The Chaser’s War on Everything and Four Corners’ broadband editions through their internet.

    There is nothing in the ABC Act to prevent the Newman board from inserting advertising in and around this content.

    The spirit of the ABC Act, drafted in 1983 before the internet was invented, is clearly against advertising. But the board has helpful legal advice that because the act is silent on internet advertising, there is nothing in the act to prevent cybercast advertising. (Lawyers. Don’t you just love ’em?)

    Again the Howard government, through Coonan, says it is a matter for the ABC board. But the government has no mandate from the Australian people to distort the existing funding base of the ABC and, through the commercial imperative this will create, its very purpose.

    Public broadcasters view their audiences as citizens in a democracy to be informed, engaged and challenged through innovative, high-quality and comprehensive programming, not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers.

    Both the ABC and SBS boards will say enhanced commercial returns will mean more Australian programming. This is superficially attractive. But what sort of programming? Mark Scott, the ABC’s new managing director, is a former editorial director of John Fairfax Holdings Ltd. We are told his Fairfax experience demonstrates that it is possible to separate church and state – editorial from commercial. This was rubbish at Fairfax and will be rubbish at the ABC. Just read Fred Hilmer’s book, The Fairfax Experience (Wrightbooks, $32.95).

    Hilmer, the former Fairfax chief executive (and Scott’s mentor), set about transforming The Sydney Morning Herald and the other papers with multipleadvertorial sections and high-gloss magazines and inserts, getting maximum display advertising bang for the distribution buck. In the process Hilmer squeezed the space available for and investment in news and quality journalism. The revenue imperative (the state) overruled editorial (the church).

    Fairfax now allows advertising stickers to obliterate its front-page headline. Did the editor ever object, at least to symbolically protect the paper’s editorial integrity on behalf of readers who buy the paper for its news?

    Cybercast advertising at the ABC will be self-defeating. When push comes to shove in the pre-Budget Cabinet expenditure review committee, treasury advisers will monitor the ABC’s commercial revenue and downwardly adjust the taxpayer appropriation accordingly.

    We now await the federal election campaign with interest. The future of public broadcasting should be on the agenda so that the Australian public can at least feel it is being consulted about its taxpayer investment in this sector.

    The ABC board should have a transition strategy in the event that, as the polls now consistently indicate, there is a change of government. It should be telling the public just what the ABC can do for Australia through the digital free-to-air multi-channel and broadband revolution.

    The ABC could have an ABC Education division with a free-to-air English and other languages channel, a technical and further education channel, a dedicated Australian-made children’s channel and other nation-building services which exploit this extraordinary and exciting technology. But the new chairman has not said “boo” on any important topic of strategic importance to the ABC since his appointment last year.

    The current ABC board cannot be relied on to advocate the cause of independent public broadcasting. It is in an ideological and party-political bog. If it is out to destroy the so-called ABC culture; introducing advertising on the ABC should do the trick.
    The current threat is insidious.

    Our minds must be clear. Labor policy announced this month is to prohibit cybercast advertising, stop the party-political stack of the ABC board and restore the staff-elected director position in the ABC Act. This is most welcome in an institution which has been under sustained ideological attack and vilification for more than a decade. But it is also hard to forget that under the Hawke/Keating governments 1983-1996 the ABC was substantially defunded. Pressure must be maintained on any incoming Rudd Labor government to rebuild the ABC’s creative capacity and to protect the multicultural purpose of SBS.

    In this regard, we need to know exactly what Kevin Rudd and Rupert Murdoch discussed at their New York meeting in April. Murdoch does not give photo ops to wannabe prime ministers without securing policy undertakings or, more euphemistically, understandings.

    Murdoch would want extended indefinitely the outrageous regulatory protections for his 25 per cent share in the now highly profitable Foxtel pay-TV. He’d also be seeking ways in which he and James Packer could wrest the other 50 per cent of Foxtel away from Telstra without having to pay an extortionate price. He would also want the ABC to be further marginalised, just as public broadcasting is marginalised in the US.

    Where would public broadcasting stand in the event of a change of government in Canberra? Please let us know, Mr Rudd. In the meantime, those who want the ABC to survive as an adequately funded, independent, mainstream and non-commercial public broadcaster will have to fight hard.

    We must never get tired.

    ~~~~~~

    Quentin Dempster is a journalist, author and ABC broadcaster. In June 2006 he was elected to the ABC board as staff-elected director. The position was subsequently abolished by the Howard government. Due to format compatibility SaveOurSBS has not included the cartoons by Lindsay Foyle who is a pocket cartoonist for The Australian. The original story with the cartoons can be viewed at Walkley Magazine.

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  • Save Our SBS

    For an historical account of sponsorship and advertising including the effect at SBS, before February 2006, please read the comment submitted by Darce on the SaveOurSBS.org web site at http://saveoursbs.org/archives/112#comments